Having always loved islands, I was thrilled when I discovered that the weekend task on the National Trust’s Borrowdale estate that I had organised for the West Yorkshire National Trust Volunteers, was to consist of rhododendron bashing on Derwent Island. This is the largest of the islands in Derwentwater, and although it is owned by the National Trust, is tenanted and is therefore only open to the public on five days per year. We were to be even more fortunate in that we would be working on days when the island was not open to the public, and would therefore have it to ourselves (apart from the tenants). I was also eager to try out Castlerigg Farm campsite, and made plans to make this my base for the weekend.
Leaving Yorkshire in pouring rain, I was more than a little apprehensive, and rather sceptical about the Met Office’s promise that the sun would be shining on Keswick. I need not have worried. As I approached the Lakes, the weather rapidly improved, and I was able to admire the glorious views from the site while pitching my tent. I think many people must have been put off by poor weather elsewhere in the country (or the poor forecast for Saturday night – more on that later), as the site was less than half full, and remained so for the whole weekend.
Saturday morning dawned dry, though overcast. After a very welcome breakfast in the on-site café, we made our way down to the lake, where the tenant collected us in a boat from their private landing stage.
On landing on the island, we were given a guided tour by the National Trust ranger. As would be expected, the views are stunning, and the island gives a unique perspective to Catbells and the Newlands fells in particular.
After our tour, we set about clearing and burning rhododendron with gusto. For those who don’t know, rhododendron ponticum is now a controlled plant, as it is non-native and highly invasive, having originally been introduced by the Victorians, along with several other undesirable species, including Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed. It supports few insect species, and consequently few bird species, and grows so densely that little else can grow in areas where it is present. It is therefore now regarded as something of a pest.
After lunch, we were given a guided tour of the show rooms of the house by the present tenants, an unexpected treat. It is certainly well worth a visit for anybody who happens to be in the area at the time of the open days.
As we were leaving the island, the rain, which had held off for much of the day, finally started to fall in earnest. This set the tone for the rest of the evening. It was indeed a wild and windy night on the campsite, and in spite of the exertions of the day, I struggled to get more than a few hours’ sleep. It was almost a relief when the time came to take the tent down, although the night had been strangely exhilarating, even if it had occasioned me some anxiety! The rain continued on and off for much of the morning, although it was broken up with periods of warm sunshine too.
By lunchtime on Sunday, we had almost cleared all but a few yards of the rhododendron that we had been tasked with removing. Unfortunately, despite much coaxing, the fire was struggling to get going, largely due to the dampness of the material. We therefore had to leave the task unfinished. Nevertheless, it was impossible to be disappointed after having such privileged access to the island. I was certainly very pleased when the ranger told me that we would be returning to Derwent Island next year!